Donald Trump is NOT a populist

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Reporters and TV talking heads who keep calling Donald Trump a “populist” need to read some history, or maybe dig up an old Robert Shrum essay.

“Donald J. Trump is a populist in the same sense that the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea is democratic,” Shrum, a Southern Cal professor and veteran Democratic consultant, wrote in Politico last August. “He is a demagogue who, under the cover of a contrived populism that traffics in resentment of ‘the other,’ pursues a plutocratic course that betrays the very people he tricked into voting against themselves.”

'Donald Trump is a populist in the same sense that the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is democratic.' – Robert ShrumClick To Tweet

The original Populists and the Robber Barons

Real-deal Populists, whose heyday was the 1890s, were wise to political hucksters like Trump. The hucksters of their day, too, were rich con artists who claimed to champion working stiffs while pursuing policies that were coldly calculated to enrich themselves and the rest of the country’s plutocracy, notably union-hating business and industry tycoons appropriately dubbed “Robber Barons.”

Some Robber Barons didn’t hide their contempt for working people. “They don’t suffer,” George F. Baer, a lawyer and lackey for coal mine owners, said of striking miners who came to America from eastern Europe. “Why, hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

However, Trump seems to be taking a page from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s playbook. Said to be the wealthiest man in the world in his time, Carnegie, who became a famous philanthropist, wrote articles effusively praising workers.

He was also a bare-knucks union-buster. Carnegie took a vacation to his native Scotland while his plant manager did his dirty work, using scabs, Pinkerton detectives, and machine-gun armed state militia to smash the historic strike at the Carnegie Homestead mill in 1892, the year the Populist Party held its first national convention.

The Populists on the issues

The Populists made no bones about opposing the Robber Barons and the politicians who did their bidding. The Populists condemned the growing gulf between rich and poor and argued that government was obliged to help close it.

The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty,” the preamble to the 1892 Populist party platform read in part. “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

Trump is the anti-Populist on a broad range of issues from taxation to union rights.

Progressive taxes

The Populists believed that the more money you made, the more taxes you should pay. The party favored a progressive, or graduated, federal income tax. (The 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, authorized Congress to levy income taxes.)

The Trump-Republican tax bill is based on the notion that the heavier your bank account, the lighter your tax burden should be.

Today, the gap between rich and poor is greater in America than in any other developed country. That tax bill, which lavishes the most generous tax breaks on rich people and big corporations, will widen that chasm.

Unions and workers’ rights

Too, the Populists supported the right of workers to form unions and to strike. They also favored the eight-hour work day.

On the campaign trail, Trump said he preferred states with anti-union “right to work” laws to non-RTW states. “His administration has rolled back protections to ensure that American workers can be safe on the job, receive fair pay and benefits, save for retirement, access high-quality training programs, have a voice in their workplace, and not be discriminated against at work,” wrote Karla Walter and Alex Rowell of the Center for American Progress.

Trump is especially all in for crushing public employee unions.

Trump is a billionaire to the manor born. (He says he’s a billionaire, but we can’t know for sure because he won’t show us his tax returns.)

On the other hand, most Populists were less than well-heeled; many were impoverished farmers. Others were poor workers who lived in town and city slums or in miserable mine camps, toiling long hours at low pay in dangerous jobs while their bosses pulled out all the stops to fight unions.

The role of government

Also unlike Trump–and the Republicans–the Populists did not demonize government. They saw government as their vehicle to right economic and social wrongs and to redistribute wealth downward. In addition, they advocated a sweeping program of government action to aid farmers and workers.

Trump and the Republicans loathe laws that guarantee workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively, that protect worker safety and health on the job, that shield consumers against shoddy and dangerous products and that safeguard the environment against polluters.

The president and his party think government has little or no responsibility to help those who need help. They want to keep government on the sidelines–except to enrich the already rich–and keep unions out of the workplace.

Other issues

Populists put people before profit. They believed government should run railroad, telephone and telegraph companies. They argued that transportation and communication were too vital to the national well-being to be controlled by individuals whose chief interest was personal riches.

Populists advocated “free silver,” an inflationary government monetary policy to help boost farmer income.

They called for the direct election of U.S. senators, who had been elected by state legislatures since the country was founded. (Also, ratified in 1913, the 17th Amendment required direct election.)

The rise and fall of the Populists

Populism swept the country, especially farm states, and the party achieved remarkable success at the polls. They elected almost a dozen members of Congress and a number of governors. They won majorities in some state legislatures, which in turn elected some Populists to the U.S. Senate.

When Iowan James B. Weaver ran for president in 1892, he polled more than a million votes and carried a quartet of western states.

Ultimately, the Populists faded. In 1896, the Party endorsed pro-union and partly populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan for president. He lost in a landslide to conservative, anti-union, pro-business Republican William McKinley.

The pervasive racism of late 19th-century America also contributed to the Populists’ undoing. Early on, the Populists urged poor whites and people of color to unite at the ballot box against the abuses inherent in an unfettered capitalist system.

But in the rural South, a Populist stronghold, the white supremacist Democratic powers-that-be played the race card and shattered the movement. Politician-publisher Tom Watson of Georgia turned to race-baiting, anti-Semitism, Catholic-bashing, and xenophobia.

Today’s Populists and Anti-Populists

“But Watson’s fraudulent and poisonous populism has lived on in politicians like Alabama’s George Wallace, whose serial presidential candidacies in the 1960s and early 1970s tapped into a white backlash against civil rights in a number of northern states,” Shrum wrote. “So Trump is not unique as he exploits his own updated version of this scar on American public life.”

The prof said of the Yankee George Wallace: “Trump offers psychic satisfaction to the worst of his constricted base, with very little or nothing at all in the way of an economic program genuinely on the side of the Rust Belt voters who (barely) put him over the top.”

“….To call Trump a populist is to malign the populism that was so memorably expressed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 when he said: ‘Never before in all our history have these forces of [selfishness] been so united in their hate for one candidate – and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it these forces … met their match. I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it they met their master.” And Roosevelt backed his words with the deeds of a New Deal that lifted the standards of life of tens upon tens of millions who had been left behind by the Great Depression.'”

The New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society remain the twin bugbears of most Republicans.

Shrum concluded that “the real populists today are Democrats—and not just Elizabeth Warren [and, I’d add, others like Richard Ojeda, a real-deal, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead West Virginia state senator, congressional candidate, and ex-Army paratrooper]—but it’s not a story they’ve been successful in telling. They have to convince the country, especially the economically stressed who are struggling to pay their bills as they watch the rich get richer than ever, that they’re on their side. Saving Obamacare was a good and essential first step. There is not just a Better Deal, but another New Deal to be advanced—and effectively communicated.”

It’s the job of the political parties, not the media, to communicate party messages effectively to the body politic. BUT … the media is supposed to get the story right. So newshounds, columnists, and pundits of all stripes:

Stop calling Trump a “populist.” Donald Trump is NOT a populist.

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Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.